“Becalmed”, the sailors word for it. Those times in life, when the winds slow and die. All that propelled us – delight, excitement, energy, exuberance – flutters to a stop. No wind. No luff on the sails. Only the still lapping of water against your little boat bobbing listlessly on the sea.
This Friday is the fourth class in our series, “Uncharted Waters: Navigating Times of Change and Transition”.
In the past weeks, Bob Perkins and I have been learning with the eight members of our class about what sailing can teach us about finding our way through times of change. First, in an hour in a boat, followed by an hour of reflection on land. We’ve explored the terror and excitement of stepping into a new experience. The tippiness of trust. What it means to listen for the wind. All important parts that can help make a time of transition truly a transformational season with new perspectives, new commitments. A new life.
And yes, as well, times like this. No wind. When all that forward movement stills, stalls. You want to go back or forward. Exactly what you cannot do. All you can do, is be here, in this strange, uncomfortable place of being “becalmed”.
All week I’ve been learning about it. I think it’s allergies that finally caught up with me in this weird spring of hot sunshine in Seattle. Clobbered me in lethargy, sleepiness. Gain new sympathy again for people who due to age or disease have to live more often than I in this wear of weariness. Someday, that too, might well be me. But right now, I am expecting the wind to come and blow the pollen free, my plugged sinuses to clear. To be out sailing in exultation again. But, no, not quite yet.
Times of stillness are no stranger to all of us, allergy suffering or not. No stranger to sailors, although you won’t find a lot written about such times in sailing books. “Becalmed” is not what sailing is “supposed” to be about. Not what you are “supposed” to be doing. Yet, as any experienced sailor will tell you, “becalmed” is often exactly what you do. Sit there bobbing quietly on a glassy sea. Going nowhere.
Our “textbook” for our class is a little book called, First You Have to Row a Little Boat: Reflections on Life and Living. Author Richard Bode learned to sail as a boy in Long Island Sound. One late afternoon, after a joyous day of playing in the wind, he turns to home. The steady breeze, stills, dies. A mile from home. No way to get there.
As I have done, he runs to think of all he needs to do, could do, to get out of this mess. Lean the boat this way, or that. Bring the sails as far out as they will go. None of it helps.
The sun drops, the darkening sky begins to glisten with lights. He lies in his boat. A gull perches on the mast. He waits. Rests.
Awakes. A gentle ruffling of sail. A little puff of wind. He sits up. Adjusts his sails. The wind in the past hours has not been idle. It’s done a complete turn about, 180 degrees.
Wind can shift an imperceptible degree or two, this way or that, but the wind can’t make a radical change of direction – from South to North, East to West – without first passing through a period of calm.
Decades later, far from the sea, Richard learns the same lesson. Rushing off into one more frenetic day that he has been calling his life, he is leveled by his hip caving in. Months in a cast. A long season of healing and immobility. A journey he did not want, did not choose. And an insight that is born of it that he didn’t want to face. He realizes how he has been so caught up in his restless, exhausting, push-through-it-all-and-keep-on-going life – and scared to death that it might stop. For who would he be, how would he define, think of himself, if he couldn’t do what he has always done? He is leveled by the dead calm he has so feared and avoided. And what is born of it, a change in the wind. A change of direction. A leaving of the life he had, so that he might become the man he has wanted to be.
I’m not sure how this Friday will be for our class. Gusty winds or dead calm. But in any case, we will practice going nowhere, fluttering sails in the wind or drifting quietly on our little sea of Lake Union.
Come Friday or not, it will come. Call it becalmed. Call it allergy season. Call it sickness. Growing pains. Aging bodies. The frustration of not going as quickly as we can. The little boats of our lives inevitably, bring us here to this place of stillness.
But maybe, call it as well, an invitation to summer. When the wind is stilling, so it can change directions.
And in this stillness, to realize the deep mystery that is at work. From whence will the new wind blow? How will we trim our sails to meet it? Where will we let it take us?
a good season,
June 18, 2015